The death of swords and sandals 

The death of swords and sandals 

Alexander the Great was a force of nature, one of only a handful of men to change the course of world, rather than national, history. He finished classical Greece before destroying the Persian Empire, conquering 90 per cent of the known world and bringing the whole of Eurasia, west of the Himalayas, into one cultural mass. His conquests spread Hellenic culture as far as India and his decisions reverberated like ever shrinking shockwaves throughout centuries. And his brief existence inadvertently influences lives 25 centuries later – for the great conqueror has just irrevocably damaged the careers of Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell.

It is difficult to know where to start with this film, for it does not feel like a Stone production at all. Firstly, because the famously Vietnam-obsessed director has not managed to get his favourite bugbear into the storyline – unless of course one takes the whole of Alexander’s campaign as a metaphor for the United States’current military expansion. In which case it seems odd that the anti-Bush director has made Alexander a fantastically sympathetic character, a man who only conquered the world because he wanted to end human conflict. His massacres, of whole towns and nations, as well as of former comrades he accused of treason, are glossed over. One scene has the self-styled son of Zeus lament: “One day the populations will mix, Asia and Europe will come together.” It is a cringeworthy piece of Hollywood corn, and provokes cynical laughter from the audience. Even as Alexander and his European invaders march through the modern-day Middle East, the liberator cries: “These people want, need change. We freed the people of the world!”

But directors can get away with historical whitewashes if the acting and script are up to scratch, and in this case they are not. It is hard to speak dialogue set in classical 

times without sounding faintly ridiculous, as one cannot pepper the philosophising words on battle, death and love with the mundanity of ordinary life, but Alexander none the less fails badly. This has much to do with the fact that Stone has directed his Macedonians to speak with Irish accents, an ill-thought-out idea. Of course Stone is not the first to do such a thing; early 20th century translations of Aristophanes have Spartan characters speaking Scottish dialect, to reflect the fact that different Greeks had trouble understanding each other. In my sixth form classics class such a trick may be amusing; in the cinema it is disastrous. Having the one-eyed Philip II, played by American Val Kilmer, shout “by the sweet breath of Aphrophite” in an Irish country lilt sounds nothing but comical. Meanwhile Alexander’s southern Greek mother Olympias, played by Angelina Jolie, speaks with an accent that is at least Balkan, though it sounds more Bond girl than Greek.

The acting, perhaps hampered by a poor script, does not help. Farrell, who excelled himself in films such as Tigerland and Phone Booth , is not up to the role of a man who ruled millions – he just does not have the charisma of a Russell Crowe. Anthony Hopkins, playing an aged Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s successors, is nothing more than an occasional narrator, while the King’s generals, who follow him through several years of battle and in real life were racked by jealousies and feuds, merge into a single squawk without individual character. As for Alexander’s mother, she is nothing more than a sexy fairy-tale witch, devoid of all human qualities except the relentless thirst for power.

And the production itself looks far more like something from the early days of colour than a modern CGI blockbuster, with Babylon presented as an orgy of garishness. Perhaps it is supposed to transport us to a magical world, with its hanging gardens and beautiful women sitting on purple cushions and stroking white cats, but it only reminded me of David and Victoria Beckham’s wedding in OK! magazine. Students of cinema history might wish to 

see this one, for the reason that very occasionally one will witness a film so bad that its kills off a whole genre, in this case the swords and sandals revival; it arose with Gladiator in 2000, and while last summer’s Troy was its decline, Alexander is its fall. It 

is a sign of its expected failure that a group of Greek businessmen who objected to their national hero being portrayed as a homosexual (after all, who would associate a Greek with such a thing?) have quietly dropped their suit against Warner Pictures.

This article was published at The Catholic Herald

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